Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Surprise Ally: Could Videogames Offer SFR Widespread Appeal?

Movies, doncha know, have extremely high budgets. The higher they go, the more studio executives bite their nails. This cycle drives the demand for safer, proven formulas. Ditto with television shows, which is why we’re treated to endless incarnations of Octuplet Nation or Polka With The P-List Stars.

Videogames offer something different. In a recent post, I blogged about the possibility of videogames—which offer the ultimate interactive experience—increasing the allure of science fiction romance. Could games, instead of movies or television, provide the SFR media breakout for which we’ve been searching?

Sometimes, to really strike paydirt, you need to expand your excavation plans and dig outside of your own backyard.

E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, recently concluded its annual late-spring flourish of what we’ll see in the world of videogames over the course of the coming year. Steven Spielberg was there, and James Cameron showed up and spoke in length about AVATAR, his forthcoming (and hitherto super-secret) science fiction opus.

“Très intéressant,” you think. But what does this have to do with SFR? Why I’m so glad you asked!

Nowadays, writers are seeing their words published in ways Gutenberg could never have imagined—and I’m not just thinking about Mr. Kindle here. As videogame graphics grow more realistic with their real-time specular lighting and GPU-crunching tessalation, so does the demand for better stories and dialogue. The days of grabbing whoever happened to be walking by to write lines like, “Ha ha—now I will defeat you!!” (or my personal favorite) are long gone. Now equipped with decent budgets, videogame companies hire real writers and expect real stories.

A lot has changed since the days of the Atari 2600. According to this ESA 2008 industry report (NB: opens to a PDF), the average game player is 35 with women representing 33% of the overall pie (flying right in the face of the typical mainstream media belief that all gamers are basically nerdy 12-year-old boys). Adults demand more stimulating adult themes (and I’m not talking about MORTAL KOMBAT mature here), but games that evoke real emotion.

Don’t think that’s possible? Watch this:

It promises more than just the thrill of jumping over barrels, doesn't it?

This multibillion dollar industry needs to grow and feed the corporate sharks every year. To do this, more and more people need to join the fold—which demands branching out beyond another HALO and Mario clone. This need begets trying new genres and different approaches, some of which pay out huge dividends (look no further than a once low-budget, niche title named GUITAR HERO). So if we can’t have our big budget SFR movie right away, we can play it as a game.

In fact, that game—MASS EFFECT—has already been released with a sequel now on the way. Take a look (warning--there's violence o' plenty if you have little ones nearby):

So what would you want in your SFR videogame?

1) A sprawling space opera plot? Check. You got it.

2) A strong, appealing hero and heroine? Check. They’re here.

3) Stunning visuals? Check.

4) A great villain? Check.

5) Hawt lovin'? Well naturally, yes…and that’s here, too!

MASS EFFECT was a huge hit. Along with the sequel, it’s spawned a series of novels and has been optioned for a big budget film. OXM (OFFICIAL XBOX MAGAZINE) called it, “a great science-fiction novel in videogame form.” Also noting that it has: “[the] best story ever told in a videogame, period.” MASS EFFECT also won multiple awards, including THE NEW YORK TIMES’ “Game of the Year” crown.

A lotta people bought it. A lotta dollars were made. And yes, it is science fiction with a very strong thread of romance in it.

So if that’s the case, why aren’t we seeing more productions like this? We know the demand (largely untapped, mind you) is there.

Perhaps it's partly because the videogaming industry as a whole is still very young. It isn’t as set in its ways as the publishing or film worlds. People in the gaming industry are typically younger, too. Fresh faces typically bring fresh, open approaches. Plus, as stated earlier, the industry recognizes its need to expand and bring in more people.

So for all of you writers out there, keep in mind there are more outlets for your words than those printed on a page. And for the rest of us, the material is there. We just need to look. Whether you're looking for kick-butt heroines...

...or more of what we REALLY want to see, it's out there:

Forget Lucas, THIS is the STAR WARS movie I want! Despite “only” being a game trailer, this hot little number contains more excitement than the last three movies combined (Note: You really owe it to yourself to download it in high definition. You will NOT be disappointed!)

In conclusion, I realize that gamers and readers often dance to the beat of different drums. Yet sometimes they're one and the same. But even if an SFR videogame doesn't attract readers in droves, it has the potential to flood our pop-culture consciousness with characters, stories, and themes that we might want to read about in books, too.

At the very least, such an endeavor could help validate and define the worth of a very worthy genre.

Joyfully yours,